Smokers!

I’ve wondered for some time why and how smokers became pariahs so quickly and so substantially. We see them standing, lonely and separated, hunched against buildings probably within which they work. They may have a colleague at their side, but they are banished nonetheless.

It wasn’t many years ago that a majority of the population smoked. In the 30′ 40’s and 50’s, movies included repeated sequences of actors “lighting up”. It was de rigueur. It was chic and socially “smart” to smoke. Each brand of cigarette sought to give its user some defining sense of self. A long cigarette with martini and pearls, or a Marlboro Man….your choice.

Now, in the last decade, that image making has been obliterated. For those of us who did not smoke, the change was glorious. No more smell, no more hand waving. We marvel at what we endured as non-smokers. How and why was it so suddenly and effectively snuffed?

We knew for decades that smoking was unhealthy. Skull and crossbones on the packaging! Yet they persisted. The tipping point, I believe, was the image and consequences of “second hand smoke”. (remember the image of smoke curling upward through floors and ducts to spill upon a sleeping baby?) Only when the smoker became an “environmental hazard” did the tide really turn against the smoker. To this day, I am not sure that such claims have thorough credibility. I suspect most current adults were raised in households where both parents smoked. Air pollution was worse, and yet most of us do not have lung problems. But still, I think it was the “second hand smoke” issue that was the undoing of the smoking class. They became symbolic of the wide range of “polluters”. They were living industrial smokestacks. They were living, identifiable litterers. The abstract of pollution and polluters was suddenly manifested!

This personification of pollution was the smoker’s undoing. Killing yourself was one thing. Killing me and my family was another. Here was a case of the government at the behest of environmentalists, with the aid of advertisers creating a simulacrum that paid off. The Killer Smoker. The Purveyor of Second Hand Smoke! We turned on them like jackals. From the home to office to the nightlife….all indoors was out-of-bounds. Even outdoors had its limits. Don’t smoke upwind. Even the bastions of Europe, cafes and bars, are beginning to tumble.

It was a powerful and rapier thrust. Such rapid and almost total change of a pervasive social mode is hard to remember anywhere else. Imagery more than science made smokers the pariahs they are today. The zealots of environmental issues were completely successful here. They crushed the enemy. They wish they could crush industry in a similar manner. Cigarettes yesterday, coal tomorrow. The value of the smoker as pariah, the lonely figure huddled in the alcove, is valuable in its imagery. It gives visual immediacy to the abstraction of pollution. The environmental purists need that lonely smoker huddled against the building. It shows you what they can do. It shows their power. It verifies their threat. (the frying pan image of the sizzling egg…”this is your brain on drugs” did not work nearly as well)

The lonely smoker is the recurring billboard image the environmentalists dearly want. I am not denigrating what has happened. As a non-smoker I applaud this success. Here, I merely point to the fact that the success of this change is based more on image than on science. It would not have come about on medical science alone. It was the change of an image. A smoker went from bon vivant to killer in a matter of years. That’s the power of a script! That’s the power of a narrative! Put that in your pipe and smoke it!

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10 thoughts on “Smokers!

  1. The funniest thing is thinking about the smoking section of the airplane; where there was absolutely no delineation between the non smoking area and smoking. The whole cabin just filled with smoke. Yes, the smokers seem to get moved further and further away from buildings. I think Santa Monica just passed a bill of no smoking anywhere? The more it is removed from our daily lives the more offensive it seems to become when encountered. It is incredibly surprising the quick progress of this movement. I’m not sure how it was accomplished; but it does make some sort of testament to what humans can when we want to. Most of the time it seems no one can decide on the simplest of tasks. It does seem like a quandary of what was the underlying success of this movement and how can we apply that to the global state of affairs?

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    1. Yes, wouldn’t it be great if all new laws took effect so adroitly! Maybe such incidents are examples of when legislators find the perfect inflection point in the public need. Legislators need to look for such prime targets of opportunity and serve their constituents better. There are some things the big arm of government can enforce that the people can’t yet want. Too often government gives us laws too few actually need. Thanks for reading.

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  2. It all started with Hollywood. Just as you say. Who didn’t want to smoke like Bogart or Brando, Hepburn or Gardner? It was easy to do. Everyone smoked, almost, and our heroes smoked too? Everyone I knew smoked. I was a kid looking on as my grandparents and parents smoked, drank and played cards.
    I grew up in houses filled with cigarette, cigar and pipe smoke. Cars, clothing, furniture, sisters, cousins cats and dogs all smelled of cigarette smoke. The smell of a lit match I associated with mother. Okay, I’ll get on with it. I’ve got parallel theory, or at least a sympathetic one. The image of the smoker became that of the “polluter” is potent stuff. However, smoking lost its glamour. Glamour, I wonder, may have a shelf life like a can of peas. It had run its course. It had become cliche at best. How many of the hip set from 1964 to the present are shown smoking? Jim Morrison? John Lennon? David Bowie? Meryl Streep? Sean Penn? The image was gone. (Moreover, people had forgotten how to smoke, but that’s another post). The “script” had dried up. Once that happened, it was open season on smokers and here come the “environmentalists”, just as you say, locked and loaded!

    Thanks for another insightful post. I had no idea where it was going! And enjoyed the ride.

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    1. Again, Sam has given a keen read and pause for thought. Which came first, the loss of chic or the health hazard? The loss of chic making smokers vulnerable is a compelling possibility. I need to think on this. Maybe food for another post. Thank you, Sam, for the provocation.

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    2. Yes, I think in line with what Sam mentioned that the smokers are akin to “Polluters”; I think people often view smoking and smokers as “dirty” in a world more a more about cleanliness and healthy appearance.

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  3. “Polluters” is Mr. Lydic’s metaphor in his post, not my own. I wholly agree with you both it is the turning point for smokers….the micro-polluting phenomenon in first bloom. It could be like this: “We’ve got nuclear reactors melting down in Japan, Canada a fracker’s paradise, supertankers disgorging crude, off-shore oil wells blowing leaks, face-fulls of diesel smoke on the streets, acid rain, garbage heaps floating in the atlantic growing pseudo-peds(unconfirmed), and now there are asteroids heading our way….well, by God, I can’t do a thing about these crisis, but I CAN throw that smoker into the street!”

    Mr.Lydic, the “loss of chic” is just as you revealed in your book. Either the playwrights couldn’t overwrite the societal trend or once we saw Robert DeNiro at 300 lbs smoking a cigarette in “Raging Bull” and abusing his wife the chis was shot.

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  4. Yikes! I meant to write, “chic was shot,” but I found out that “Chis” is a region in France. Someday, a post on parallel scripts, the ones we write simultaneously, same roles, same players?

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    1. Sam….regarding your thoughts on “parallel scripts”…check my book…re chapters entitled “dueling scripts” and “imagine that!” where I discuss those exact moments and a path to resolve the inherent conflict in them. Hope they add fodder to this line of inquiry.

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